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How to Grow Columbine (Aquilegia), a Cottage Garden Favorite

Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.

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Columbines are a beloved cottage garden flower. They are hardy plants that freely reseed themselves in your garden providing years of color. Gardeners also love them because they bridge the flowering gap between spring bulbs and summer flowers. They are deer resistant, an important consideration for those of us who share our yards with wildlife.

What are Columbines?

Columbines, also known as aquilegia, are herbaceous perennials that are found throughout the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere. The name aquilegia is derived from Aquila, the latin word for eagle. The petals of the flowers when viewed from above resemble the claws of an eagle. The other common name, columbine, derives from the latin word Columba which means dove. Where some people see eagle claws, others see a group of five doves. And still others see a hat and call them “Granny’s Bonnet”. What do you see?

Wild columbine are commonly found in meadows and woodlands. Domesticated plants can tolerate sun but grow better in light shade. They are hardy in zones 3 – 9.

The plants grow 15 – 20 inches tall and 12 – 18 inches wide. They flower in the late spring between the time that the spring bulbs have finished blooming and the summer flowers have not yet started to blossom. The flowers come in a range of colors and can be solid or bicolor. Plant breeders have developed many different cultivars. They have created flowers with long spurs or no spurs. They have even created double flowers which are barely recognizable as columbines.

Aquilegia canadensis, native to Northeastern North America growing in my garden.

Aquilegia canadensis, native to Northeastern North America growing in my garden.

Here in the US, two native species are popular: the red, wild columbine that is native to the Northeast and Canada and the blue columbine that is native to the western states.

Columbine grows easily from seed. The cultivars that have been developed over the years hybridize freely so if you don’t deadhead your flowers, you could get a new crop of columbine in new colors the following spring.

The plants are prone to powdery mildew if grown too close together. The number one pest in your columbine patch is the leaf miner. They don’t kill the plants. They just leave brown trails on the leaves as the larvae tunnel through leaves. The best way to get rid of them is to watch your plants carefully and at the first sign of leaf miner activity, squeeze the leaves. This will kill the larvae and halt the spread of the trails on the leaves.

Aquilegia coerulea, native to the western area of the US.

Aquilegia coerulea, native to the western area of the US.

Is Columbine Poisonous?

The native Americans ate columbine flowers. They are safe to eat in small quantities. The seeds and roots should never be consumed because they are highly poisonous. They contain cardiogenic toxins which cause heart palpitations as well as severe gastroenteritis. Eating the seeds or the roots can be fatal.

Columbine that are bred to have no spurs are barely recognizeable as columbines,

Columbine that are bred to have no spurs are barely recognizeable as columbines,

How to Grow Columbine

Columbine grows best in part shade. It can tolerate full sun in the spring when the sun is not yet strong, but in the summer, especially in warmer climates, it needs shade in the afternoon. Although native columbines grow in almost any kind of soil, the hybridized plants that are popular with gardeners need rich, well-drained soil. A monthly feeding of water soluble fertilizer formulated for flowering plants will keep your plants healthy and growing.

Plant your columbines 1 to 2 feet apart to avoid crowding. Once the plants start blooming in the late spring, keep them deadheaded (remove dead and dying flowers) to prolong the blooming period. If allowed to go to seed, the plants will stop blooming. Most gardeners like to take advantage of columbine’s tendency to freely reseed so in the early summer, they allow the last few flowers to go to seed.

Keep watering and fertilizing the plants after they have stopped blooming. The leaves are busy making food for the roots that will help them survive the winter. When the foliage dies back in the fall, cut it down to the ground and remove it from your garden. Dead plant material left in the garden over the winter provides hibernation sites for harmful insects such as the leaf miner.

The Nora Barlow hybrid series has double flowers.

The Nora Barlow hybrid series has double flowers.

How to Grow Columbine From Seed

Columbine plants are readily available at local plant nurseries every spring, but a lot of gardeners prefer starting their plants from seed. The number of cultivars available tends to be limited locally. There are many more available through catalogs.

Starting Seeds Outdoors

You can direct sow your columbine seeds in your garden early in the spring after your last frost date. Gently press them into the soil so that they have good contact with the soil but don’t cover them. The seeds need sunlight to germinate. Keep them moist and they should germinate in 30 days. Thin your seedlings to 1 to 2 feet apart. They will start blooming the following year.

Starting Seeds Indoors

Columbine seeds can be started indoors 6 – 8 weeks before your last frost. Gently press them into a container with pre-moistened soil so that they have good contact with the soil. Don’t cover the seeds. They need sunlight to germinate. Keep the seeds moist. They should germinate in 30 days. You can transplant your seedlings outside in your garden after your last frost. Plant them 1 – 2 feet apart. They will bloom the following year.

© 2020 Caren White

Comments

Caren White (author) on January 08, 2020:

I've never seen them spread like that! How wonderful for you.

Kaili Bisson from Canada on January 08, 2020:

They are so pretty and a really nice addition to any garden. I have pink ones, but am now thinking about adding a few more colors to my garden based on your wonderful photos. They do self-seed very well...I have them coming up in the cracks between patio stones behind my garage.

Caren White (author) on January 07, 2020:

You will not be disappointed! Columbines come in so many colors, you may have difficulty choosing.

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on January 07, 2020:

They're so pretty. My yard is really shady. I might try growing a few. Thanks!